Which is scarier?
Ooga booga, of course.
That's the difference between The Ring and the average American scare-a-thon. The difference is one of cognitive dissonance. "Boo" is what an American horror movie would deliver, and it's entirely expected. "Boo" is cozy, and as familiar as Frankenberry. "Ooga booga," on the other hand, makes very little sense. It's strange, and it's irrational, and even worse, it resists translation.
It knocks us off balance.
The premise of The Ring (2002) and now The Ring Two, which opens today, is pure ooga booga. It comes from Japanese director Hideo Nakata's smash Ringu (still the biggest hit in Japanese history), and like a lot of Japanese horror films, what lends it that weirdness is that it's unnerving, patient about doling out its scares, and sorta stupid and deadly serious all at once. It resists common sense, even as the hairs on your neck stand up. You see, the Ring films, along with their American remakes, which star Naomi Watts, tell the tale of a killer videotape. Right, homicidal home entertainment.
Murderously goofy stuff.
But that didn't stop the first film from ending on a genuinely chilling, borderline apocalyptic note. Watts played Seattle newspaper reporter Rachel Keller, who learns a local urban myth is more real than she cares to know. There's this videotape, and on it is a reel of disjointed images - an avant-garde film student's senior project, by the looks - and if you watch, the phone rings and a scratchy voice politely explains that you'll be dead in seven days. (Oh, great.)
By the end, Rachel's son, Aidan (David Dorfman), had watched the tape, and Rachel had watched the tape, and they've discovered the only way to reverse the curse is make a copy and show it to some unfortunate sucker with a VHS player.
You save yourself.
The ring of evil goes on.
At least until the last DVD holdout on Earth heads down to Best Buy. But therein is the nice absurdity. Technology is as common a carrier of evil in Japanese horror films as genetics is in American horror movies, but it's not the most reliable method for demonic spirits to do their business. Hard drives need updating. Dial-up gives way to broadband. Spreading evil via VHS in 2005 is like a carjacker who insists on only holding up stagecoaches.
So The Ring Two is a moderately smart horror flick, or at least smarter than the typical horror sequel. What keeps it from being great is what kept the first remake from being more than just unsettling: The Japanese are comfortable leaving the irrational as is, but we need to explain everything, and we can get boorishly literal-minded.
The Ring Two is no different. It has an aura of impending dread and a nervous energy until the special effects take over and Watts gets all Nancy Drew. The more that is explained in these movies, the more armchair psychology is used to justify the existence of a killer videotape, the less disturbing they become. In the Japanese version, the images on the tape stay unexplained, irrational, and untranslatable. In the American remakes, Watts connects every image to a clue. It all has to represent something important.
That's when I lose interest.
In The Ring Two, which finds Rachel and Aidan relocated to a small village on the Oregon coast, we also grapple with the idea that a videotape has followed them from Seattle. This is possibly the most ridiculous development in a sequel since the fourth Jaws picture. In Jaws, the shark was blown up; in Jaws 2, electrocuted; in Jaws 3-D, blown up. In Jaws: The Revenge, however, the shark, despite having died three previous times, tracks down and eats the relatives of its original killer.
Now that I think about it, by those standards, The Ring Two almost makes sense. Rachel, who took a job at a rinky-dink newspaper, discovers that new teenagers are watching the tape and dying seven days later. She comes home one night to find the tape in her recorder. She throws it in a barrel and sets it on fire - and doggone, if that thing doesn't shriek a little. How it got in her house, who knows?
But the shriek is eerie.
The malicious spirit in the tape is Samara, who is waterlogged and walks in a creepy lurching motion and looks like Peppermint Patty on methadone. We learned in the first film Samara was an evil little girl who drove her mother to drown her in a well. On the tape, Samara emerges from the well, then climbs through your television, and when she scares you to death, you look like how Michael Jackson would look if he melted.
Samara has an agenda now. She wants to inhabit the body of Aidan (Dorfman also returns, in full metal Haley Joel Creepy mode) so she can re-enter the world.
The amount of intensity Watts brings to these films goes a long way in smoothing the many bumps - which, thanks to cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, is like driving a rutted road with gorgeous views.
Watts, a native Australian, has a crooked smile and haunted eyes that complement the colorless skies and curtain of mist hanging over the Pacific Northwest.
Director Nakata, who remakes his own film for his English-language debut, is not only comfortable with the material (being it's his), he seems inspired by the dour locale and the professionalism that an American crew often brings to even the lowliest piece of multiplex fodder. The usual rub is that Hollywood remakes are never as good as their foreign originals, but the truth is, the American Ring movies, at their best, are far more engrossing.
Nakata soaks every nighttime scene in shadows, while the daylight scenes get a splash of darkness. It's as if the entire film were shot during an eclipse. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who wrote the first movie) tries admirably to push the story forward; this time it's more about the unspoken connection between parents and their children, and the burden of guilt when something goes wrong, than the usual shocks. But I could have used more.
Just a few more, and less sleuthing. The most ominous scenes involve herds of spooked deer - and scenes of waterlogged carpets and hardwood floors that gave me nightmarish images of cleaning bills.
And I'm not kidding: These scenes work because they feel steeped in everyday queasiness: household worries, road kill. Some say kids are being swallowed by technology. At its best, The Ring Two makes the metaphor real, and without warrant or reason. At its worst, you expect Watts, imagining the dingoes of her youth, to scream: A video ate my baby!
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org